three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-The GunC. J. Chivers, a former U.S. Marine infantry officer (he served in the first Gulf War) and a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist with the New York Times, provides a rare insider's view of the history of automatic weapons.

The Topic: The AK-47, with as many as 100 million copies in existence, is the most widely distributed gun of all time. It was also, argues C. J. Chivers, a breakthrough firearm for its compact, jam-free design. To provide context for this weapon, Chivers first traces the development of automatic firepower, starting with the Industrial Revolution. He then explains the invention of the AK-47 (the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47, or the "Automatic of Kalashnikov 1947"), which was designed in the late 1940s by a secretive "committee" for the Soviet Army. The expansion of Soviet influence led to the global proliferation of the weapon by the late 20th century. The Gun follows the inventors, gunrunners, governments, terrorists, child soldiers, and drug traffickers who have since used the AK-47 to either support or become powerful one-man armies.
Simon & Schuster. 496 pages. $28. ISBN: 9780743270762

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Chivers explodes several myths in this exhaustively researched account, beginning with the Stalinist legend that uneducated novice designer Mikhail Kalashnikov independently created the world's most widely recognized weapon. ... [He] has done outstanding work telling the story from both sides of the barrel." Chuck Leddy

Salon 4 of 5 Stars
"Ostensibly a history of automatic weapons--and a very good one--it's also an engrossing yet plainspoken exploration of what guns are and what they do. ... I'd imagine that this blend of insider and outsider sensibilities is part of the reason why The Gun manages to be consistently fascinating without devolving into adolescent gun fetishism, moralistic finger-wagging or tedious info-dumping." Matt Zoller Seitz

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Tracing the development of other weapons] helps put the AK-47 into context but also causes the book to lose some narrative momentum. ... [Chivers] is less adept as a writer, and The Gun is full of infelicitous phrases." Max Boot

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"He has written an objective, fast-moving biography and analysis of this infamous utensil of death." Tom Dodge

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"He writes about a Hungarian who during the 1956 Soviet invasion became one of the first insurgents to use the AK-47; East Germans shot trying to escape over the Berlin Wall; American soldiers under fire in Vietnam; Israeli athletes murdered in the Munich Olympic Village in 1972; child soldiers in Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army; and a Kurdish bodyguard wounded during an attempted assassination in northern Iraq in 2002. Mr. Chivers reminds the reader constantly of the human consequences of the firepower that the AK-47 has made cheap and widely available." Robert Kim

Critical Summary

Although the title may initially put off some readers, The Gun is a far-ranging work of war reporting, military history, sociology, and politics. The automatic weapon is, of course, the focus, but Chivers goes far beyond a mere technical history to offer "an engrossing yet plainspoken exploration of what guns are and what they do," from their psychological effects to their economic and political impacts (Salon). Chivers, whose firsthand reportorial and military experiences informed his book, left few sources uncovered; he even interviewed the aging Kalashnikov. Despite general praise, a few critics thought the broad historical perspective (such as the long sections on the American M-16 assault rifle) too digressive, but most agreed that The Gun is a riveting, well-handled look at one of the modern world's most influential--and destructive--technologies.